I have this weird daydream sometimes. When I come across some nice building reserved for a very specific audience — say, art auctions or church services — I imagine what it would be like repurposing its facilities as an open community centre serving the surrounding neighbourhood. Especially if that building is rarely used, I catch myself thinking, “What a waste.” If it became a house of the people, locals could meet there for book clubs, dinner parties, discussions on local politics, whatever they can think of — all free of charge. Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t residents get a new appreciation for the area they live in if the best real estate it has to offer were available to all?
But hold on a second. Why is my mind suddenly preoccupied with this vaguely socialist notion of an all-purpose space for public assembly? Well, I don’t know for sure. But my best guess is that I have a deep-rooted need to “settle down” somewhere: to have a sense of belonging toward the anonymous figures I share a postal code or weekly streetcar ride with. Frankly, I believe that the way we treat our right of assembly leaves a lot to be desired. I believe it could be exercised more broadly and productively. If we used this basic human right to include more intercultural and inter-ideological encounters, we might take away a lesson or two about what it means to understand someone whose life differs from ours and to accommodate their interests despite disagreements.
You could argue that in making that criticism I’m overlooking the social significance of churches and other places of worship. And fair enough, where I’m from church services are indeed publicly accessible and of public interest, and their community centres serve as an important adjunct to that. But what I’m driving at here is that churches often fail to invite truly public engagement because the religious context they exist in isn’t inclusive of all residents in a given area. If you’re serious about creating a public space that can blossom and bear fruit, you need to do it on neutral, secular grounds.
Note that I’m not in favour of political action that strips churches of their religious affiliation; I’m simply calling for taking inspiration from non-secular communities to foster collaboration among citizens regardless of faith. Sadly, my fantasy is confined to a socialist utopia since I’m not sure it would be acceptable to take a building out of private hands just because it has appealing architecture. (As regards the owners of that quasi-abandoned auction house, though: I’m coming for you.)
Perhaps I should be paying less attention to the venues that trigger those daydreams and focus on the vision itself instead. Isn’t it strange that so many societies get by without any institutionalized form of public assembly? It’s really tempting to conjure some conspiracy theory from that observation, but let’s tackle this more soberly. It appears that there’s not much of a desire for connecting with the perfect strangers in your vicinity. So maybe people just don’t see local geography as an important marker of identity, especially since it’s become so easy to forgo geographical distance to talk to people who do share an identity with you — familial, political, ethnic, whatever. The fact of the matter is, we can afford to take the anonymous faces and voices around us for granted. But that doesn’t mean we have any good reason to. It’s not a choice so much as a mindset. A qualified choice would be taking steps toward conquering dissent.
Free dialogue is a gift for which we’ve invented innumerable applications (and even abuses that result in hatred being spread). But it doesn’t stop with common interests. A community doesn’t have to be built on shared interests; it can be built on differing ones as well. After all, not every self-organized group of people can be as homogeneous as a sectarian subreddit. Sure, there needs to be common ground for a certain unity to take root. But I would suggest that we’re bound to find some if we just take the concept of “common ground” literally.